A former student of mine called the other day. She’d worked at a major global company in the food industry, with primary responsibility for sourcing a key ingredient needed for a particular product.

Concerned about the environmental damage that came from traditional methods of cultivating the ingredient, and in light of this company’s professed mission of protecting the environment, she decided she would take the initiative and find an alternative source that was grown more sustainably.

But things didn’t go as planned. It turns out that the alternative ingredient was 25% more expensive than the traditional one, and her boss’s boss was not pleased. Despite countless company communications initiatives about sustainability and the environment, when push came to shove at this business, reality surfaced and it was not pretty.

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She was so disillusioned that she started looking elsewhere for an opportunity more in line with her values, and it wasn’t long before she had moved on. The episode marked the beginning of the end for her work at the company.

Transparency between what you say and what you do has never been more important

Transparency between what you say and what you do has never been more important.

In this case, not only did the company in question lose a good employee, but this former student of mine has friends, and ex-professors, and a social media presence, all of which could cause real damage if she chose to speak out about her experience. While she chose not to go public, many others do.

In fact, any firm with the temerity to lie to millennials, whether directly or indirectly, runs the risk of falling foul of its customer base and compromising its corporate image. Bending the truth, or not putting your money where your mouth is, is just a bad idea.

The dilemma

Here’s the dilemma. Every company knows that these days they need a compelling mission to justify why they do what they do. This is standard practice for most businesses and leaders. And more so than other generations, millennials are particularly mission-driven. So far, this sounds like a great match, a great way to entice millennial workers and customers alike, while striving for something meaningful.

But it may also be a trap, and certainly a double-edged sword.

The problem is that most mission statements (same for company documents, internal memos and speeches by senior executives on corporate values) make claims that are often not true. United Airlines is “warm and welcoming” according to their CEO, but it didn’t seem that way for the man who was dragged off one of their planes in April. Or, in the way the incident was handled by the company in the days after. And don’t get your Kiwi friends started on the kerfuffle with Adidas and New Zealand’s beloved All Blacks rugby team several years ago. It seems the company whose mission was “to be the best sport company in the world,” evidenced by what “consumers, athletes, teams, partners and media will say about us” were selling national rugby team jerseys cheaper in the United States than they were in New Zealand.

The only thing that millennials care about more than mission is transparency and integrity

The only thing that millennials care about more than mission is transparency, integrity and accountability. If you tell millennials that you will do something, they actually expect you to do it, as opposed to earlier generations who may have understood that saying something and doing something are not always the same. Or, who may have understood that sometimes reality gets in the way of even the best intentions. In contrast, millennials are much more literal. You better back up the talk with the walk.

When this doesn’t happen – and let’s face it, modern business is complex and not everything works as advertised –  millennials react personally. And when you lose the trust and confidence of millennials, they are very unforgiving. So, now you have these millennials in your company, who joined because of what you promised, and it turns out that you were lying (or such is the verdict of millennials). Now you’re stuck.

Millennials, in particular, are adept at searching for information on things they are interested in, from all sorts of sources, and don’t always entertain old-fashioned notions of career loyalty. All of this makes it potentially very risky to adopt a lofty mission and not be able to back it up.

The answer

So what to do? The best answer is to have a powerful mission that you truly believe in, and to follow the implications of that mission when the tough decisions need to be made. Pretty much the opposite of what happened to my former student. Remember, people are watching, and they are watching more closely than you may think.

There’s a risk to holding yourself out as superior to other organisations. That’s asking for trouble

I won’t be the one to advocate for a weak mission, or a meaningless mission, or a vacuous mission. But there’s a risk to holding yourself out as superior to other organisations. That’s asking for trouble.

Perhaps corporate leaders should spend more time on creating a culture that brings value to employees – via opportunities to learn, via transparent progression programmes, via accomplishing something difficult or something important.

More than ever, career mobility abounds meaning people have more choice in where they work. Meanwhile, the boundaries between work and life are blurred, and our employers form part of our online profiles. Arguably, where you work says more about you and your identity than ever before.  Most employees want to learn and get better and want to feel good about where they are working. Millennials more so than just about anyone.

So, spend the time to figure out what makes people tick, what they want at their stage of career, and do whatever you can to help them get there. This is not about coddling millennials; this is about creating an organisation that is so attractive to the most highly educated and technically adept generation to ever come knocking at your door looking for a job that they will want to join, and stay.

Attracting and retaining talent – especially millennial talent – is one of the top concerns for corporate leaders around the world. More so than ever before, the answer has got to come from your culture. Make it transparent, make it about learning, and make it about integrity.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).

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